By Andrew Curtis
As a coach, getting your team to perform the way you want them to in the first game of the season isn’t always realistic, especially when it’s the first game of your tenure.
This was exactly the case Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, where Kansas prevailed 31-17 over South Dakota State. It was neither pretty nor ugly.
We saw the Jayhawk offense put up 263 yards on the ground due mainly to the backfield combination of Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox. We also witnessed the defense providing a horrific flashback to the Turner Gill era, giving up a 99-yard touchdown run to the FCS Jackrabbits in the first quarter.
KU also forced five turnovers, including four interceptions (two of which by senior safety Bradley McDougald), but the offense only managed to convert 5 of 17 on 3rd downs.
Final observation: the special teams unit excelled early by blocking two punts, but the team self-destructed in many ways, most notably with a red zone fumble by Cox, a Doherty missed field goal and five penalties as a team for 45 yards.
Most importantly, a team which had lost its previous 10 finally got back into the win column, even if it was merely against a team it was supposed to beat.
Senior quarterback Dayne Crist made a few good throws here and there, but appeared nervous in his first live action in more than a year. Many of Crist’s throws were high, and he seemed hesitant at times to get rid of the ball. He also threw an interception.
Crist’s timing with the offense will only continue to get better going forward. The veteran quarterback possesses good size, excellent leadership abilities and a cannon for an arm.
He also has a solid group of wide receivers, led by the three seniors, Daymond Patterson, Kale Pick and DJ Beshears. Of his 17 completions, 14 of them were to the aforementioned trio. The other? A two-yard touchdown pass to tight end and fellow Notre Dame transfer Mike Ragone.
As I said earlier, the running game was solid due in large part to the offensive line, with both the speedy Pierson and surprisingly powerful Cox rushing for over 100 yards apiece. The lumbering Brandon Bourbon made a couple nice plays with the ball as well.
With Charlie Weis’ proven ability to put together an offensive unit and call plays, the offense should put up some points this season. Add leading rusher from the past two seasons, James Sims (who is suspended for the first 3 games for a violation of team rules), to the mix, and the offense will be firing on all cylinders.
The defense is obviously the bigger question mark. A unit which gave up an average of 44 points per game and allowed 50 or more points a whopping four (!) times last season showed signs of progress in the season opener, aside from allowing the 99-yard run. Dave Campo’s crew showed something we haven’t seen in the past: a knack for creating turnovers. The secondary appears to be the strongest and most experienced unit, with upperclassmen McDougald, Lubbock Smith, Greg Brown and Tyler Patmon leading the way.
Clearly, this is a football team that still has a lot of holes, but I like where they are headed. Of course, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Coaches always say a team always makes the most improvement from the first game to the second game. We’ll see just how big of a difference a week makes coming up this Saturday against Rice in Lawrence.